John Akomfrah has spent his career creating films that are more 'tone poems' about a subject than literal narrative or documentary. Combining
newsreel footage with often surreal images he shoots, and sometimes an audio collage approach to sound, Akomfrah's films are by turns brilliant,
frustrating, effective, sophomoric and just plain unique. Some of the films 'work' better than others for me, but I suspect that is a subjective reaction,
and one that could easily change on repeated viewings.
In short, these are more like films you'd see playing as an installation in an art museum than at your local cinema, which probably explains why so
little of Akomfrah's impressive body of work is available on home video. Kudos, then, to Icarus films for this three film collection.
Some thoughts on each of the films - at least my first viewings of them.
Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993) The most 'normal' film in the set, in that it has a clear focus - Malcolm X the man, his life and particularly his assassination.
Still, Akomfrah uses a quiet, almost poetic approach to this short (52 min) documentary.
Obviously 52 minutes isn't nearly enough to truly explore the man and his long, complex journey. But Akomfrah instead provides insightful interview clips from
many who knew Malcolm at various times in his life (shot far more interestingly than most documentary `talking heads'), striking historic film clips, and many `staged `
moments. But instead of trying to re-enact history (something that so often fails), Akomfrah creates surreal and almost painting like tableaux; a young Malcolm
standing staring at a bird cage. An older Malcolm, friends and family out of focus in the background, holding a sign that says "I made me". These turn the film
from a familiar documentary into something more artistic and personal. Far from the definitive film on Malcolm X, but a worth addition to the exploration of his life,
times and legacy.
The Last Angel of History (1996) For me, the weakest of the three films, though still arresting at times. An interesting basic theme - that the black Diaspora echoes
the experience of aliens in science fiction - strangers in a strange land indeed; abducted from the world they knew, and faced with technologies and societies that
made no sense to them. But even though the film is only 45 minutes, the idea starts to run thin after a while, and the surreal visuals start to lose their power through
repetition. I'm glad for Akomfrah stretching the medium, using film more as poetry than narrative, But when it doesn't work right it can wear out it's welcome before long.
The Nine Muses (2010) The most purely poetic - and my favorite - of the three films here, a tone poems with no literal narrative. "The Nine Muses takes as it's `subject'
Africans and others emigrating to England after WW II, and the difficulties in assimilating, as shown in numerous and well chosen old film clips. But the film combines
those clips with gorgeous, lightly surreal images of two unidentifiable men in parkas against the background of Alaska while on the soundtrack great writers from Homer
to Beckett are read aloud by great actors (from Naxos' recorded book series, most many years old). The reading with the most clear thematic connection is "The Odyssey"
and it's tale of a difficult journey. But all the readings echo the immigrant experience, if sometimes in a very oblique way. At the same time, the score is a mix of all sorts
of music, often crashing into and playing on top of each other (more on assimilation? Loss of identity?)
I'll admit, by the end of the 93 minutes, I was starting to burn out a little on the lack of clear connection and context between these images, words, and the eclectic score.
But like poetry, this is a film that transcends logic to create a mood more than a story or point. And while I don't think it all works, I salute Akomfrah for being
willing to challenge his audience with something experimental and different.